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What’s so toxic about a “daddy date”?

February 24, 2017

The other day, a friend shared a link to an article deriding “daddy dates”, whereby a father takes his daughter(?) on a “date”. The article and its agreers felt that the concept was poisonously patriarchal, bordering on creepy.

“Spending time with your children is normal,” called one such person. Their point was that we shouldn’t make special terms for it. More broadly, the point was two-fold: one, that we shouldn’t raise girls to think that dates are these things where a man takes you out and treats you like a princess; two, we shouldn’t subscribe to the notion that fathers are absent by default, and therefore have to make special dates to spend time with their children.

I know where this idea comes from. It’s a feminist concept called “toxic masculinity” – concepts of masculinity, usually devised and propagated by men, which are harmful to the male psyche and an individual man’s wellbeing. In some applications, the theory can explain a lot of male issues. I don’t believe this is one.

Above is a classic example of one person projecting their personal experience of “normal” onto everyone else. There is a breadth of experience of fatherhood. The idea that spending time alone with each of your children is normal doesn’t account for those many of us whose fathers were absent by default – even if they lived at home.

It was not their fault, nor particularly their choice. They worked long days, commuting late enough that by the time they got home, it would be close to their children’s bedtimes. They could only be found at weekends, where they had to deal with all the rest of the home stuff, the spouse stuff, and divvy their time up between two or more children.

There are only two weekend days. What does a man with three children do – risk not seeing one of his children one week? Or does he perhaps spend his entire weekend driving back and forth with different children on the same day, for the sake of spending time alone with each of them in a private setting?

The problem is that the “toxic masculinity” label is ahead of its time here. The label assumes that we have all moved so far beyond the days of the traditional nuclear family where a man works and a woman stays at home with the children, that a father needing to think properly about how to spend time with his children is a laughable concept.

Unfortunately, we do not live in that world. Different families have different modes of operation.

My mum was a full time housewife, through her own choice and lack of financial necessity to do otherwise. My dad was the bigger earner; he was older and his career was further along. It made perfect sense for them to walk the traditional path. They didn’t need to have conservative values to make that decision.

They used the guidelines of their day to inform their choices. In those days, I don’t think it was as common as it is now for parents to announce their deeper intentions to their children. While my parents may have made some attempt to spend time alone with me and each of my brothers, at no point did I hear the words: “Today is Jonathon’s day to be with Dad,” or anything similar.

The “daddy date” thing is there to address that. Without contrived reasons to do things, parents often fail to do them, however important they are. Constructs like naughty corners, pocket money and grounding all exist as parental guidance systems to help parents figure out how best to raise a child, according to those people whose job it is to figure this stuff out.

Disregarding the twee name for a moment, the daddy date is just another one of those. Within families where the father spends less time with his children than the mother, it may be necessary for him to mark out time designated to each. Without this guidance, both mothers and fathers may fail to see the value of this process. They may think that once their children cease to be of the age where they require and desire bedtime stories, they no longer need so much attention.

As a result, by the teenage years, this attention naturally drops off the end. It becomes harder to find natural ways to spend time with children alone. More often than not, all the siblings will be there, and things will be a chaotic attempt to locate activities that keeps everyone occupied. Daddy dates aren’t about that – they are about conversation.

Increasingly, as we understand the importance of honest communication between parents and children, we recognise that teenagers need more encouragement to talk; we see that if neglected at this stage, they may withdraw and become these mysterious, unknowable entities.

They, in turn, don’t know their parents. The parents and children have failed to re-establish the terms of their relationship, in such a way as to allow them a comfortable adult relationship. They may become estranged. It makes sense to have a format by which parents can directly tackle this.

As for whether the daddy date should be gendered – i.e., a dad should take his daughter out (instead of his son), or if we should include mothers in the pleasingly alliterative umbrella term of daddy date – is a separate issue, not related to how “normal” it is to spend time with children individually. It concerns the potential difficulties in communication that may strike between genders.

It’s still true that, for whatever reason, some men have difficulty having conversations of emotional importance, the type which teenage girls may be keen on having. It is also true that boys are not particularly inclined to talk to their mothers about anything. We don’t have a format for it yet, and the daddy date concept creates that format.

If anything, the daddy date is a proposed challenge to toxic masculinity; instead of allowing fathers to leave the “girly stuff” to the mothers, it creates a situation where they are expected to take that responsibility. We shouldn’t forget that these notions are still relatively new, and have not entirely taken off across all the generations still living.

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From → Gender Politics

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